Friday, October 4, 2013

Tuscany: Serendipity on a Plate

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

The word 'Tuscan' evokes a sense of charm and rightfully so. It conjures up images of picturesque vineyards, rolling hillsides, rustic Italian farmhouses and exquisite architecture. My experiences in Tuscany however left me associating it with yet another word- serendipity.

Fate led me to Tasso, a very aesthetically designed hostel which captures the essence of Tuscany. The owner Romina is a renowned photographer, an experienced blues-soul singer and to my luck, a fantastic culinary guide. When I introduced myself as a chef, she insisted that I join her on a tour of the gastronomic opulence of Florence. She spent an entire morning feeding me through the main market and some fantastic bakeries and salumerias nearby.

I was adamant about visiting the wine region of Chianti but equally hesitant since it wasn't very easily accessible. Lorenzo who I met at the bar in Tasso suggested that I rent a Vespa-- Italy's favorite scooter-- and I concurred.

Driving in Italy was intimidating at first. I had never driven in Europe before and the right-hand traffic was disorienting. I was more comfortable by the time I reached Chianti and the wine tasting in the gorgeous Castello di Verazzano winery definitely helped calm my nerves. Riding through the Tuscan wine country up and down curvy roads surrounded by scores of vineyards and olive trees was captivating and incredible. It was the icing on my Tuscan cake.

Tripe and other goodies for sale at Mercato Centrale


Specialty food store Perini

Chianina beef used for the Bistecca
Trattoria Mario, a Florentine institution

View of Florence from atop the Duomo

Lampredotto from L'Antico Trippalo

Tuscan wine country Chianti on a Vespa

Later that same day, after exploring the length and breadth of Florence, I ended up at L'Osteria Di Giovanni for dinner. Being the notorious single diner in a busy restaurant, they seated me down in their wine cellar at the head of an unusually long table. Thankfully, they soon escorted three new customers to sit beside me.

Michelle, Patty and Nicole had traveled to Florence from USA, Mexico and Germany to attend a language course in Italian. They turned out to be the perfect strangers. We spent the next three hours laughing, chatting and relishing the food like we'd known each other for years. It was the most fun conversation I'd had in weeks.

During my time in Florence I ventured to find the best local dishes, as I did in every city I visited. Most important on my Tuscan bucket list was the Bistecca all Fiorentina, a thick cut T-bone steak from Chianina cattle cooked on a grill with just salt and olive oil and by default served rare. I had mine at Trattoria Mario, a restaurant which is something of an institution in Florence especially amongst the locals.

Another interesting delicacy was the lampredotto, a typical Florentine peasant dish that can be found in stalls and carts in many corners of the city. It is made by braising cow stomach in a broth of water, tomato, onion and celery and sandwiching it between crusty bread with salsa verde. It's not for the generally squeamish but to me it tasted rich, unctuous and wholesome, just the way I like my food.

I was also very taken in by the ribollita (means reboiled), a thick soup made from leftover bread, beans, vegetables and olive oil. It was simple yet heartwarming, a good representations of all things Tuscan.

On my final evening in Tuscany, as I was passing through the legendary Ponte Vecchio, I stumbled upon a musician playing to a huge crowd. It turned out to be the renowned Florentine singer Claudio Spadi. Watching him perform his original 'Buonasera' against the backdrop of a beautiful Tuscan sunset was an unforgettable experience. A good evening indeed.

Even though these were completely random decisions, choosing Tasso hostel, dinner at Giovanni or even walking through Ponte Vecchio at that precise moment ended up being rewarding in many ways and crucial to my Tuscan experience.

When making an elaborate journey, good planning is essential. After Tuscany, I realized it is also equally important to leave certain things to chance. You never know where it could take you. And sometimes, that's a good thing.

My Quick City Guide to Tuscany

Bistecca alla fiorentina and other typical Tuscan dishes for lunch at Trattoria Mario
Trippa alla Fiorentina at Nerbone
Lampredotto at L'Antico Trippalo
Ribollita at Da Vinattieri
Dinner at Solociccia, L'Osteria di Giovanni, Buca Mario
Ricotta and Pear Gelato at La Carraia

Spend an entire morning oggling inside Mercato Centrale
Buy specialty foods at Perini inside the market after a degustation of their products
Luxurious chocolates at Dolce Forte

People watching at Piazza della Republica
Admire the powerful statues at Loggia dei Lanzi
Scale 463 steps to the top of the Duomo to get a 360 degree view of Florence
Explore the wine region of Chianti on a Vespa (or a car)
Wine tasting and tour at Castello di Verrazzano
Walk through Ponte Vecchio after dusk and hope Claudio Spadi is performing there

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